The American Dream is not a new notion, quite the contrary. Many of us have been hearing about the American Dream since we were little, from relatives who lived it firsthand.
Many of us have experienced the upside of this notion in our lives, coming to America to make a better life for our families. We are a country of immigrants, with people coming from all corners of the earth with the American Dream in mind, hopeful for a future guided by the idea that everyone deserves equal access to opportunity.
When unemployment is peaking, the income inequality gap is unacceptable, and the current global pandemic disproportionately impacts minority communities. Students cannot access equitable opportunities during and after college. The question on so many people’s minds is, “what happened to the land of opportunity?”
For many U.S. students hoping to earn access to opportunity and a chance at prosperity, success, and upward economic mobility, their current reality is anything but a dream. The truth is that equitable opportunities are yet to be the norm, especially for minority students and especially during the pandemic, according to recent findings.
What Is Equity of Opportunity?
To help ensure that equity of opportunity exists for students and Americans of all ages, it’s crucial to understand what that term even means.
Is equity the same as equality? Not exactly. Equality is about sameness and about protecting the idea that everyone deserves the same thing. Equity is different — it’s more about fairness and ensuring that every person gets what they need, which may or may not be the same as the person next to them.
Recognizing the difference between sameness and fairness is an essential first step in assessing whether equitable opportunities exist for U.S. students, mostly minority students today.
For there to truly be equity of opportunity, we as a country need to ensure that educational systems are put in place to provide every child and student with the tools they need so they are set up for success. This, of course, requires that educational and political leaders recognize and assess the unique challenges faced by each segment of the population.
Realizing that many communities face significant barriers and will require additional support and access is essential if we want to preserve this idea of the American Dream, where all Americans are granted the same access to opportunity and the same chances of success. And while equity of opportunity might not guarantee equal outcomes for all students, expanding that access to quality education is a key step in making long-term success a real possibility for all citizens.
The disparity for minority communities, on the other hand, has never been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is exposing America’s deep divide.
The Truth About Equity of Opportunity for U.S. Students During Covid-19
Quality education is not a guarantee for all students. When that education must occur at home, virtually, without in-person schooling or face-to-face teacher interaction, it’s even less of a guarantee.
In particular, many students in lower-income, minority, or at-risk communities do not have access to the environment, supplies, tools, and support they need to learn during these troubling times.
Some students may not have a quiet place to work. Others may lack reliable internet access or a working computer. Some students might rely on school-provided meals, and during these virtual learning days, they are unable to afford food. And as students and families struggle to figure out how to make home learning work for them, children are falling behind in terms of academic performance and educational opportunity.
According to a recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company, students, especially minority students, will suffer significant learning loss due to school closures and at-home learning in response to Covid-19. While that learning loss varies based on whether a student has access to quality virtual instruction, the pattern is evident: students of all ages will suffer several months of learning loss and diminished academic performance due to school closures. That learning loss will be significantly more damaging for low-income, black, and Hispanic students.
To drive the point home, just look at the data from Curriculum Associates, creators of the i-Ready digital-instruction software.
They found that “only 60% of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90% of high-income students do. Engagement rates are also lagging in schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students; just 60 to 70% are logging in regularly.”
In addition to this learning loss, COVID-19 closures may increase high-school drop-out rates (currently 6.5% for Hispanic, 5.5% for Black, and 3.9% for white students, respectively), as vulnerable students will be less engaged and will lack access to the support systems and academic relationships they rely on for success.
You see similar issues and disparities among college students, especially first-generation minority students. CNBC reports that about 27% of first-generation college students come from households with an income of $20,000 or less, compared with only 6% of students who were not the first in their family to go to college, according to a survey by the Institute of Education Sciences, the non-partisan research arm of the Department of Education.
Those financial needs and disparities are only exasperated during the pandemic when unemployment is spiking, and families and students struggle to make ends meet to pay for school tuition, among other things.
Many first-generation students are being forced to make difficult decisions about the future of their education due to financial hardship and family obligations to work and care for relatives.
Is the American Dream Really Dead?
U.S. students are clearly struggling during these unprecedented times of instability and suffering. The equity of educational opportunities and access to quality schooling is not a guarantee, from elementary school up through university. However, it remains a crucial step in ensuring that all Americans can reach their highest goals.
But is the American Dream dead? It depends on who you ask, but many immigrants, students, and recent graduates don’t think so.
According to Julissa Arce, the author of My (Underground) American Dream and co-founder of the Ascend Educational Fund, “right now is a difficult time for all first-gen students as they are facing a health and economic crisis that is changing the world as it is.” But this too shall pass, she hopes.
Arce is herself a first-generation success story; her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and she worked her way up to vice president at Goldman Sachs before the age of 30 while she was undocumented.
Her best advice during these challenging times is to ask for help.
Students should consider all options, whether taking time off before finishing a degree or getting a paid internship to help with financial needs in the interim. There’s no shame in asking for help and taking a step back when needed, she suggests.
“This will pass and what really matters is to advocate for yourself and your goals,” Arce said. “In the future, you will look back and see that if you made it through a pandemic, nothing will stop you from now on.”
If you need another success story to bring hope, just look at Oscar Munoz, a Mexican-American, first-generation college graduate, who became the first Hispanic CEO of a major U.S. airline. He is proof that the American Dream exists. And he believes that despite the bias and disparities that are also prevalent, the American Dream is not dead.
“I long for the day when someone like me is not the exception, but the expectation,” he told CNN Business. “Despite the facts that point otherwise…I have to believe that…We have to believe in this country with all of its great history, with all of its great sort of melting pot and historical success.”
It starts with education and making swift changes to how the educational system is operating as the country and the world grapple with the effects and aftermath of a devastating pandemic.
Because expanding access to quality education is essential if we want the American Dream to be a reality for everyone, and if we as a country want America to be still seen as the land of opportunity. Without equity of opportunity in education, the deep divides that are tearing apart our nation will only get worse.